By Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published in The Georgia Review, Fall 1978; Reprinted in Contraries.

Somehow it has happened—no one knows quite how, or why—that the incidence of violence and robbery has doubled. Arsonists’ fires have ravaged towns and villages, and in some places there is even disease: plague, and the threat of a cholera epidemic. The manager of a factory in the town of Shpigulin has shamelessly cheated the workers, and working conditions are very poor; subversive leaflets have appeared, urging the overthrow of the existing order; the idle, prankish company that routinely gathers in the Governor’s mansion is becoming involved in adventures of an increasingly reckless kind. (They are called the Jeerers or the Tormentors.) The historic Church of the Nativity of Our Lady is plundered and a live mouse left behind the broken glass of the icon. Fedka, the escaped convict, a former serf who was sold into the army, many years before, in order to pay his master’s gambling debt, roams the countryside committing crimes—not just robbery but arson and murder as well. The police seem unable to find him. “Strange characters” appear—a human flotsam that comes out of nowhere to plague society. Madmen erupt. Women become obsessed with feminism. Generals transform themselves into lawyers, divinity students speak out rudely, poets dress themselves in peasant costumes. The son of the province’s most wealthy landowner has contracted a marriage in jest, it would seem, after a night of drinking—with a woman of the very lowest social order, who is both lame and demented. A nineteen-year-old boy has committed suicide and a party of pleasure-seekers crowds into the room to examine him: one of the ladies says, “I’m so bored with everything that I can’t afford to be too fussy about entertainment—anything will do as long as it’s amusing.” It seems that a number of people in the area have taken to hanging and shooting themselves. Is the ground suddenly starting to slip from beneath our feet? Is the great country of Russia as a whole approaching a crisis? Demons begin to appear, licking like flames about the foundations of order; a Trickster-Demon springs out of nowhere and, very much like the gloating Dionysus of Euripides’ The Bacchae, wants only to sow disruption, madness, and death. “We shall proclaim destruction,” Peter Verkhovensky tells his idol Stavrogin, “because—because . . . the idea is so attractive for some reason! And anyway, we need some exercise.”

contrariesThe Possessed, Dostoyevsky’s most confused and violent novel, and his most satisfactorily “tragic” work, began to appear in serial form in 1871, close after the publication of The Idiot, and only a few years after the publication of Crime and Punishment in 1867. All of Dostoyevsky’s great novels show a family resemblance, just as his marvelous operatic characters are obviously kin and might, without much difficulty, stride from one novel to another; but the demonic excesses of The Possessed seem to have sprung from the “plague” of which Raskolnikov dreams at the very conclusion of Crime and Punishment, when he is imprisoned in Siberia, a confessed but not truly repentant murderer. In a delirium Raskolnikov dreams that the world is condemned to a new plague from Asia, and that everyone is to be destroyed except a very few. The disease attacks men by way of their sanity: though mad, each believes that he alone has the truth and is estranged from his fellows. They cannot decide what is “evil,” they do not know whom to blame, and they kill one another out of senseless spite, as the infection spreads. “Only a few men could be saved,” Raskolnikov dreams. “They were a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth, but no one had seen these men, no one had heard their words and their voices.”1

So in The Possessed madness is loosed. Society approaches a crisis: the classes freely intermingle in the Governor’s mansion; the fires burn; ludicrous “revolutionary” theorizing gives way to action; the Fairy-Tale Prince, Stavrogin, commits suicide; and his spiritual father, his former tutor Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, strikes out upon the road in a futile, desperate pilgrimage to “find Russia,” and also dies. And there are other deaths, some of them bitter losses to Russia, indeed: Shatov and his wife Mary, and her newborn baby (who is Stavrogin’s unacknowledged son); the inarticulate, mystical Kirilov; the wealthy young society woman Liza Drozdov; Maria Lebyatkin, Stavrogin’s secret wife, and her brother Captain Lebyatkin; even the escaped convict Fedka. So wholesale a sweep of destruction suggests a tragic crisis, a violent erasing of old gods, old profanations, in order that the new may be born. Stavrogin’s act of suicide is the act of magnanimity he had not believed within his grasp—he does become a hero, a Fairy-Tale Prince, not through the desultory acts of his largely wasted life but through the atonement of his death. By leaving the artificial paradise of his twenty years with Mrs. Stavrogin, Stepan Verkhovensky too becomes heroic: he is Don Quixote to Stavrogin’s Hamlet. (Though Stavrogin is compared—wrongly, foolishly—to Prince Hal.) Both men have been superficially attracted by the “new ideas” that are plaguing Russia, largely from the West; both are idle, even parasitic; they stand apart from the accelerated grotesqueries of the victimized community, but are unable, or unwilling, to prevent the impending catastrophes. Like everyone in The Possessed, with the possible exception of the near-anonymous narrator Govorov (who shares the curious unimaginative self-righteousness of the narrator of The Brothers Karamazov), Stavrogin and his former tutor are the most significant victims of a highly complicated saturnalia. Now mythic, now merely local (and cranky: for surely Govorov’s acidulous comments on the “scum” are Dostoyevsky’s own), legendary and historical by turn, The Possessed builds powerfully to one climax after another, ending with a festival of misrule that, in Durkheim’s terms, will serve to revitalize the diseased cultural order. A stagnant social order drifts toward decadence, and decadence plunges into chaos: but chaos in itself can be a ritual experience, a pathway of redemption. For out of the primeval chaos there can arise a purified, and of course a severely modified, community. Violence must be suffered. A number of innocent victims must die so that the truly sinful will perish—though in this particular novel it is sinful “ideas” that are to be destroyed. The dying Stepan Verkhovensky, who has come to the realization that he has lied to himself all his life and has never known his own country, insists that the Gospel woman who has befriended him read the famous passage from Luke about the demons who flee from a man and enter swine—he is able, despite his feverish condition, or perhaps because of it, to underscore for us the apocalyptic moral of Dostoyevsky’s novel:

You see, it is just like our Russia. Those devils or demons coming out of the sick and entering into the swine—they are all the festering sores, all the poisonous vapors, all the filth, all the demons and the petty devils accumulated for centuries and centuries in our great, dear, sick Russia…. But the Great Idea and the Great Will protects her from up above, just as it did that other madman possessed by demons, and all those demons, all that filth festering on the surface, will themselves beg to be allowed to enter the swine. Indeed, they may have entered them already! It’s us, us and the others—my son Peter and those around him, and we’ll hurl ourselves from the cliff into the sea, and I’ll be the first perhaps, and all of us, mad and raving, will drown and it will serve us right because that’s all we’re fit for. But the sick man will recover and will sit at the feet of Jesus. . . . 2

* * *

Ritual violence has about it a preordained, even a supernatural quality. It is not necessary to experience it as true, to use Kafka’s witty and despairing distinction, but only to experience it as necessary. Stavrogin must, like Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin, like Svidrigaylov as well, come to a violent end: even his innocent son, named for the passionate, warm-hearted Slavophil Shatov, must die. Liza, who has unwisely given herself to Stavrogin in a doomed attempt to “compress her life into one hour,” has been contaminated by her love for him, and must die one of the ugliest deaths in the novel, at the hands of a rapacious mob. Powerful demons demand a powerful exorcism: obeying the instinct for tragic purgation, Dostoyevsky necessarily sacrifices his main characters as the novel comes to its tumultuous close. And it is a stroke of genius for Peter Verkhovensky to escape, for, acting as Dionysus, a psychopath in the guise of a “revolutionary,” he is not human like the others and cannot share in their human fate. (Using a forged passport he very easily slips over the border—he is consequently loosed to the world, the diabolical progeny of Stepan Verkhovensky’s “liberal blather.”)

Much has been said of the unevenness of The Possessed: Dostoyevsky has been accused of creating caricatures rather than characters, and of exaggerating the imbecilic nature of his “anarchists.” Several close readings of the novel have convinced me that this is not the case. Of course if The Possessed—like any of Dostoyevsky’s work, beginning with The Double—is measured against the conventional standards of naturalism, it will seem somewhat feverish and improbable: but so will King Lear and Hamlet. Dostoyevsky uses brilliantly many of the devices of naturalism, the most obvious being his deliberately flat, blunt, reportorial style, which reaches peaks of eloquence only rarely (in certain stream-of-consciousness passages when Raskolnikov is delirious, for instance), and of course his reliance upon historical events (the famous Nechayev case of 1873) 3 but he is primarily a writer of myth. Or, more accurately, he is under the spell of a mythic imagination. The “horizontal” busyness of his longer works is part a consequence of his literary heritage, his conception of the nineteenth-century novel (specifically Dickens’s) as melodrama serially presented, and part a consequence of his intuitive grasp of his material as dense, clotted, and recalcitrant. And mysterious: in fact unfathomable. The Brothers Karamazov is an unsettling novel to study because it appears to contain (consciously?—unconsciously?) its own double, a shadow or anti-novel that parodies the explicit novel’s highly explicit concerns, and moves irresistibly toward tragedy. So much is affirmed—and rather noisily, too; yet so much is mocked and rejected. What precisely are we to believe? What are we to feel? In The Possessed the horizontal or linear concerns become vertical or thematic: the feverish complications of the plot symbolize the feverish complications of Russia as Dostoyevsky saw it, a great nation approaching Armageddon. (If he was not “realistic” in his portrayal of revolutionaries, he was at least prophetic.) Plot is transformed into theme, into symbolic meaning. Plot—and plotting itself—is metaphor. (For nearly everyone in the novel, innocent and murderous alike, is caught up in the activity of plotting.) The cacophony of voices, the wildly accelerated scenes translate into a philosophical, even a metaphysical statement, for there is a point at which “real life” must surrender to the forms of melodrama which do not distort it but in fact express it faithfully. It is presumably the narrator’s own astonishment he expresses in such remarks, an astonishment that his quiet provincial town should so suddenly erupt into melodrama:

It was a day of the unexpected; a day of the denouement of many plots and the beginning of many future intrigues; a day of sudden explanations and thickening mysteries. . . . It all ended in a way no one could have expected. Indeed it was a day of most extraordinary coincidences. [145]

That so prodigiously long and so luridly convoluted a novel as The Possessed evolves, nevertheless, with the structural coherence of a tragedy of Aeschylus or Euripides is a testament of Dostoyevsky’s unparalleled genius. It has always been known that he is a marvelous creator of character—he is the equal of Dickens, and perhaps even the equal of Shakespeare, in this regard. But that he is a genius as a craftsman is perhaps less well known. It is, in fact, an embarrassing cliche of literary criticism that only short works of fiction, like novellas or short stories, exhibit perfect “form,” and that any lengthy work inevitably suffers from a relative shapelessness. The naive critic tries to compare The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, discovering the one to be marvelously compact and the other sprawling and structurally unsound. But Moby-Dick is a masterpiece of structure, of a complexity that goes beyond anything Hawthorne would have dared to attempt; and it is to be presumed that the ordinary critic, infused with a myopic Jamesian sensibility, simply cannot see its vast magnificent form. My reading, over the years, of criticism on Dostoyevsky has led me to the conclusion that many of Dostoyevsky’s critics are simply incapable of measuring his genius. Perhaps it is the case that the academic-trained critic will peer into a work of art in the hope of seeing his own reflection there, or certain “critical” qualities his professors in graduate school told him to admire: symmetry, unity of tone, precision, even brevity. Don’t all literary works aspire to the condition of the well-wrought poem?

The “loose baggy monster” of Russian art is loose and baggy and monstrous only to the critic who confuses his own relative short-sightedness with an aesthetic principle. The Great Gatsby is a masterpiece of organization, but so is The Brothers Karamazov. The Turn of the Screw is deftly and beautifully orchestrated, but so is The Possessed—and The Possessed is an incomparably superior work. Yet Dostoyevsky is routinely accused of being slipshod and untidy4 —critical cliches that cannot be honored if one studies his novels assiduously. (Why, one wonders, do people so readily assume that a large, ambitious work is necessarily any less subtle than a very short work? D. H. Lawrence’s Ursula says, “A mouse isn’t any more subtle than a lion, is it?”)

Dostoyevsky had a lifelong interest in lancet architecture; he had even made a drawing of the cathedral at Cologne, and in later manuscripts he included extremely detailed drawings of granite portals, rose windows, and towers. 5 It seems quite probable that his fascination with vast, complex structures had something to do with the dense and multilayered art he created, in which the sub-text—the underpinnings—plays so powerful (though inarticulate) a role. There is a Gothic fussiness to his art, a lavish multiplication of detail, that allows the reader to imagine himself, temporarily at least, in a “real” world. (Hence the low-keyed comedy of much of the first section of The Possessed, where poor Stepan Verkhovensky and Mrs. Stavrogin attempt to make their way in liberal Petersburg circles. Dostoyevsky’s Apocalypse will be firmly grounded in the domestic.) The novel is beautifully unified through the repetition of certain themes, primarily the theme of violation (of innocence, and of individual integrity); in Dostoyevsky’s grandiose myth it is Nature itself, the very earth, that is betrayed and must be redeemed. Dostoyevsky’s characters often ask one another passionately whether they believe in God. But what is God?—where does Dostoyevsky’s God dwell? Not in the sky, surely, but in the earth: for, as Shatov says, a man who loses his links with his native land loses at the same time his gods and his life’s goals. The “possessed” characters of the novel are defined almost exclusively in terms of their relationship to their native land, which is God, a living, mystical, transcendental force, and it is significant that they are related to one another innumerable ways, some of them secret—quite as if they were all members of a single family. At the very center of the novel, however, are Stepan Verkhovensky and Stavrogin, who unify it by way of their very different passions. The novel begins with an aging deluded man who imagines himself “in exile,” and ends with him in exile indeed, yet reunited with his nation and with God. It begins with a Russian prince in exile, a false Savior, and ends with his self-immolation, his ceremonial death. There are two distinct heroes—two tragic figures—and each undergoes a ritual degradation, a ritual suffering, and a ritual cleansing. That they are, in a sense, father and son, Old Russia and “New” Russia, gives the novel an allegorical depth that in no way detracts from its probability. For even tragedy, that “terrible sacrament of the god” of which Yeats speaks, can be transformed into the probable, the historically inevitable.

* * *

The Possessed, like the most ceremonial of Greek tragedies, is in essence a debate: a dialogue between characters in opposition who are at the same time curiously similar. If Stavrogin is announced in his mother’s drawing room, it is Peter who appears. If Shatov speaks passionately and lengthily of the mystical force the unquenchable will to reach an end and, at the same time, the denial of that end—that underlies all nations, it is really Stavrogin who speaks. (“I doubt that those are my exact words,” he says cautiously.) Fedka, Stepan’s former serf, is Peter’s—and Stavrogin’s—shadow, a creature with the doomed cunning of a Smerdyakov, the instrument of others’ murderous wishes. Kirilov too echoes Stavrogin’s ideas; and though Stavrogin rejects his incoherent praise of suicide, we learn from Shatov that Kirilov is Stavrogin’s “creation”—or is Stavrogin, who also commits suicide, Kirilov’s creation? Dostoyevsky’s characters generally present mirror images of one another; it is perhaps too reductive to say that they are “doubles,” but they certainly echo one another, and parody one another. (In Crime and Punishment, for instance, Raskolnikov’s redemption through Sonia parallels Svidrigaylov’s rejection by Dunya: the one lives, the other commits suicide.) Peter is Stavrogin’s “ape”; he is a crook, and not a socialist, yet it is Stavrogin who has an “uncanny talent for crime.” Stavrogin has a love affair with both Shatov’s wife Mary and his sister Dasha, and as a consequence of a prank he is married to the demented Maria Lebyatkin; some years earlier, we are told, he raped and drove to her death a twelve-year-old girl named Matryosha. His tutor Stepan Verkhovensky was also the tutor of Shatov and Dasha, and Liza Drozdov; he is of course the father—the negligent father—of the psychopath Peter. So all are related. All mirror one another. “If the art of tragedy is to be defined in a single phrase,” Rene Girard says, “we might do worse than call attention to one of its most characteristic traits: the opposition of symmetrical elements.” 6

It is in the enigmatic figure of Stavrogin that warring elements meet. Nearly everyone in the novel, male or female, looks to Stavrogin for guidance or inspiration or strength or emotional support; it is bitterly ironic that he is the means by which they are “possessed” while he himself remains untouched—in the words of Revelation which are read aloud by Tikhon in one episode (to Stavrogin) and by the Gospel woman in another (to Stepan Verkhovensky), he is neither hot nor cold but lukewarm. A demonic frenzy is loosed about him and through him, yet Stavrogin is dying of boredom. Like Raskolnikov in his cramped cell of a room, Stavrogin, though he wanders through Europe, though he makes a pilgrimage to Mount Athos, and visits Egypt, and even Iceland, goes nowhere at all: he is suffocating, doomed, trapped in the claustrophobia of a person who cannot love. As a personality he is as complex, and as fascinating, as Ivan Karamazov, who shares a number of his preoccupations and whose fate resembles his. He is a somewhat older version of Raskolnikov, a younger but equally jaded version of Svidrigaylov. As events accelerate at a dizzying pace about him he remains unmoved, untouched. His fatal ennui strikes us as being far more convincing than the passionate warmth of Shatov, or the mysticism of Kirilov: Stavrogin in his disjointed confession (which he does not trouble to make “artistic”) articulates one of the tragic psychological problems of our time. How is one to escape boredom? How is one to apply one’s strength—which is, in fact, “limitless”—to anything that is not an illusion, a simple pragmatic means of applying oneself? Revolutionary activities are certainly diverting, as are Slavophil beliefs; a marriage might, for a time, divert; then there are love affairs, card games, debaucheries, sin. Bouts of playful madness: leading an old gentleman by the nose, biting another old gentleman’s ear. Giving away money. Taking part in idiotic social activities. One ought to commit suicide, to sweep oneself off the earth like a “pernicious insect,” yet that calls for a generosity that is perhaps not forthcoming. It may be that the situation is more tragic than one can know, and that character itself is fate: for all that one does is a consequence of what one is. Even atheism is more admirable than worldly indifference, yet how is it possible for a person to remake his soul? It is said in the Book of the Apocalypse:

These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God; I know thy works, that thou are neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked. . . .

Stavrogin is called many things by his disciples: he is a “wise serpent,” a “magician,” a “beautiful proud young god,” a “fairy-tale prince,” in Peter Verkhovensky’s excited words, “who seeks nothing for himself but stays in hiding with a halo of sacrifice around his head.” He is a “real gentleman,” everyone decides after his refusal to kill a man in a duel (because he did not feel like killing anyone at the moment); “the most brilliant specimen of the young set.” He is the “Sun.” And yet he is a “demon of irony” who has led a sarcastic life in Petersburg and who is, perhaps, not altogether well. Kirilov, who loves him, says that he is caught up in a futile search for new sensations because he has become oversatiated with pleasure; Shatov, who also loves him, and who speaks to him with the blunt angry familiarity of a brother, accuses him of having married Maria Lebyatkin precisely because the senselessness and the disgrace of it bordered on “genius.” Stavrogin, like Mitya Karamazov, does not content himself with teetering on the brink of the abyss—he plunges into it headfirst. Shatov says in disgust: “You married her to satisfy your passion for cruelty, your passion for remorse; you went through it for the mental sensuality. It was a deliberate laceration of the nerves” (241). Even so, Shatov confesses that he would be unable to prevent himself from kissing the ground Stavrogin has walked on. “I can’t tear you out of my heart,” he says.

He is to be the Savior of the Movement. Yet Lyamshin believes that he travels about “incognito,” as a representative of “high government agencies.” He is Peter Verkhovensky’s “better half.” He is Peter’s “America”—which is to say, Peter’s invention. As a child he was puny, pale, and strangely withdrawn, and far too emotionally caught up in his tutor’s whims and moods. (Dostoyevsky hints of an unhealthy relationship between Stavrogin and Stepan Verkhovensky, but does not develop it; nor do the two men seem particularly aware of each other. Yet it is said that Stepan would wake Stavrogin up in the night and “pour out his wounded sensibilities,” and the two would then sob in each other’s arms. He had managed “to touch the deepest-seated chords in the boy’s heart, causing the first, still undefined, sensation of the undying, sacred longing that a superior soul, having once tasted, will never exchange for vulgar satisfaction. Anyway, it seemed a good idea finally to separate the teacher and his pupil, even though it was rather late” (42).)

Dostoyevsky’s narrator is obviously ambivalent about him, and we may assume that Dostoyevsky himself did not know quite what to think. There is of course something morbidly fascinating and wonderfully romantic about the criminal, even the murderer—so long as the criminal is an attractive human being. Much is made of Stavrogin’s appearance: if he were not so handsome Peter Verkhovensky would not have fallen so comically in love with him. Much is made, also, of his exquisite good manners; even the narrator must admit that Stavrogin is “the most elegant gentleman” he’d ever met. He is, astonishingly, both modest and bold. His physical beauty impresses everyone, and yet—

This handsome head of black hair was somehow a little too black, his light eyes were perhaps too steady, his complexion too smooth and delicate, and his cheeks too rosy and healthy, his teeth were like pearls and his lips like coral. This sounds like a strikingly beautiful face, but in reality it was repulsive rather than beautiful. His face reminded some people of a mask. [44]

The Devil, perhaps? But a Devil with no clear perception of who he is and to what purpose even his cruelty might be directed.

We know that Stavrogin’s self-loathing is a consequence of his violation of the child Matryosha, but we don’t know, any more than Stavrogin does, what compelled him to that violation. The narrator speculates that he has never felt anger—even in moments of unbounded hatred he remains curiously aloof from his own passion. Though he is compared to the Decembrist Lunin, who deliberately sought danger throughout his life, he is really much more puzzling: his viciousness is cold and controlled “and, if it is possible to say so, reasonable—the most repulsive and dangerous variety there is.” In the remarkable chapter “Stavrogin’s Confession,” which was censored and only published for the first time in 1922, Stavrogin sets forth the details of his Petersburg existence and presents what must have been at the time an astonishing document of “vice”—and an even more astonishing self-analysis of the sadistic-masochistic personality. Knowing himself despicable for having allowed a child to be beaten in his presence, because he had mislaid his own penknife, he nevertheless feels a pleasurable sensation “which burned me like hot iron and with which I became very much preoccupied.” His more characteristic mood is one of appalling emptiness; he says that he could have hanged himself out of sheer boredom. Distractions are essential, and it hardly matters what they are:

. . . I was then seriously preoccupied with theology. It distracted me a little but afterward things became even more boring. As to my political views, I just felt I’d have liked to put gunpowder under the four corners of the world and blow the whole thing sky-high—if it had only been worth the trouble. [418]

(This is the man who is Peter Verkhovensky’s “better half.”) Drawn to the child Matryosha, or perhaps only to the keen, disturbing sensations he feels in her presence, Stavrogin either rapes or seduces her, and afterward treats her with indifference. The intense excitement he has felt passes; he doesn’t even hate her any longer; she too bores him. Quite deliberately he allows her to hang herself. And returns to his customary life of card-playing and debauchery, sensing himself both unaffected by the child’s death and yet deeply and irrevocably changed. He formulates to himself the idea that he neither knows nor feels what evil is. “It wasn’t simply that I had lost the feeling of good and evil, but that I felt there was no such thing as good and evil (I liked that); that it was all a convention; that I could be free of all convention; but that if I ever attained that freedom, I’d be lost” (426). He knows himself more thoroughly than Raskolnikov knows himself, for Raskolnikov acts under the delusion that to free oneself of conventional notions of good and evil would be to attain a kind of godliness, to be a superman. And Stavrogin is even more deadly than Svidrigaylov, who has also violated an innocent child, a deaf and dumb girl who hangs herself, because Svidrigaylov, for all his eloquent depravity, is still capable of a genuine feeling for Dunya; and at the very least he seems to have faith in physical sensation—in vice there is something permanent, he declares, “founded indeed upon nature and not dependent on fantasy, something present in the blood like an ever-burning ember, for ever setting one on fire and, maybe, not to be quickly extinguished, even with years.”7 Surely Svidrigaylov speaks—in part, at least—for his creator, just as the doomed Stavrogin does. Others may believe in fantasy—Raskolnikov, Shatov—but there is, at least, something undeniably real about the body’s life. Yet even this philosophical hedonism strikes Stavrogin as empty; in the end he is more bored than ever.

Dostoyevsky’s predilection for the dramatic image of the violated child can be accounted for on a fairly obvious level: of course he identified with his repulsive heroes, and must have felt a terrible attraction toward the violation, sexual or otherwise, of what he assumed to be pristine innocence. That the child might not be innocent is far more alarming than the fact of the violation itself: hence Svidrigaylov’s suicide after his nightmare of the five-year-old harlot who opens her arms to him. (A passage of incomparable economy and power—far more moving than Stavrogin’s somewhat similar experience.) In other works innocent women, often child-like, are misused, and from one point of view the entire plot of The Brothers Karamazov springs from old Karamazov’s drunken rape of the feeble-minded Lizaveta. (It is from this union that Smerdyakov, the “epileptic chicken,” the shadowy fourth brother who will be Ivan’s instrument of revenge, is born.) Another feeble-minded Lizaveta is murdered almost by accident by Raskolnikov. Apart from the obvious interpretation of such events one might hypothesize that, in Dostoyevsky’s imagination, the child or child-like woman is not female, primarily, but an image of Nature itself—innocent, near-mindless, possessing no language and very nearly no ego. In psychological terms the child is a symbol of the soul, and if a man “violates” it he is really violating himself; or he is dramatizing the fact that it has already been violated, or has been allowed to die. The degradation of the child not only necessitates suicide but is an act of suicide.

That this is a helpful reading of an admittedly obsessive concern of Dostoyevsky’s is underscored by a consideration of Stavrogin’s odd relationship with his wife Maria Lebyatkin, whom he has married in secret. It does not occur to anyone in the novel, and certainly not to Stavrogin, that he married her because he loved her—or saw in her qualities that might justify love. She is a fascinating character, one of Dostoyevsky’s most inspired creations, and all the more remarkable in that one feels—as in the case of Smerdyakov too—that Dostoyevsky had no clear conception of the rich, provocative depths he was going to explore as soon as he allowed her to speak. Narrative in Dostoyevsky tends to be matter-of-fact, language tends to be prosaic, almost banal. Only when people are given voices or, in the case of the nameless Underground Man, have control of the narrative all along, do we experience the surprises that belong to a genuinely spontaneous art, an art that seems to be in the process of being born as we attend. Smerdyakov is dismissed as an ignorant inconsequential lackey by the narrator of The Brothers Karamazov, yet his subtle intelligence rivals Ivan’s; and Maria Lebyatkin, though ostensibly deranged, exhibits an independent and even rather daring intelligence that compares favorably with that of the characters who surround her. It is a sign of Dostoyevsky’s genius that Maria is both legendary and “real”: a figure out of myth, a feminine component of Stavrogin’s despairing (because too intellectual) masculinity, and yet a very convincing, very credible person. She is perhaps an image of Stavrogin’s soul, and at the same time an image of the violated and betrayed soul of Russia In which case Stavrogin, like a number of Dostoyevsky’s criminal heroes, takes on a Christly role but he is a broken, cynical Christ, a Savior no longer capable of redeeming others, or himself, let alone his nation. When he comes to visit Maria with the intention of helping her she is, significantly, asleep or in a trance, experiencing a vision of Stavrogin himself that suggests that he does not really want to help her: he wants, not quite consciously, to kill her.

She sees him as the Devil, though she wants to see him as her Prince, her falcon, her Savior. What worries her is that she “may fall very much out of love” with him. He angrily rejects her title of Prince and she lapses into a demented but shrewd speech accusing him of being a poor actor impersonating Stavrogin. “Or have you killed him?” she asks. “Admit it!” Sensing his desire to murder her before he has become aware of it himself, Maria shouts that she is not afraid of his knife: and in a surprising act of violence Stavrogin (who would not defend himself against Shatov’s public blow) pushes her against a settee so hard that her head and shoulders strike painfully. He runs out accompanied by her curses: “You false pretender!”

Nature, the earth, Russia, the “eternal feminine”: Maria must suffer her husband’s betrayal, and even his murderousness. She is, like Lizaveta of Crime and Punishment, and like Sonia to some extent, a “perfect victim.” She is a virgin troubled by despairing dreams of a dead baby, sunken in a pond. She is a kind of oracle, with her deck of worn fortunetelling cards and her little hand-mirror, a dreamer, with whom Shatov can talk quite intimately: Shatov being in a more reverent relationship with the mystical impulses she embodies. She tells him of a conversation she had with a lay sister in a convent about the Mother of God, the “great mother earth” itself, and of her worshipping of the earth—

I climbed the mountain, faced the east, and kissed the ground; and I cried and cried and didn’t even know how long I stayed there crying or what was happening around me. Then I got up and turned around and watched the sun setting. . . . [140]

(It is significant that Raskolnikov is told by Sonia to kiss the earth which, in murdering the pawnbroker and her sister, he has defiled; and Shatov shouts at Stavrogin much the same advice.) Bishop Tikhon speaks of the torture of those who have torn themselves away from their own soil, and clearly foresees Stavrogin’s suicide. The allegory at the heart of The Possessed seems to turn on the “fall” of man into rational, conscious, “masculine” knowledge (symbolized here, of course, by those evil ideas from the West—socialism, anarchism, perhaps even democracy), and the necessity of suffering and atonement. What must be broken is the proud, egocentric will: the sinner either goes insane, like Ivan Karamazov, or kills himself, like Stavrogin, or experiences a conversion of the personality so complete that it has the quality of a miracle. (So Stepan Verkhovensky, the novel’s other tragic figure, is converted on his deathbed to a faith in Russia and in love that resembles Shatov’s.)

Critics who identify Dostoyevsky with his Slavophil characters are certainly misreading him, and it seems quite simply an error—a very popular error, to be sure—to insist upon using passages from his letters or journal in order to “explain” The Possessed. It is true that Dostoyevsky in writing to a friend spoke of the novel-in-progress as “tendentious”; he went so far as to say that he was so anxious to express certain ideas that he didn’t care if they ruined his novel as art. “Let it turn out to be only a pamphlet, but I shall say everything to the last word,” he told his friend Strakhov on April 5, 1870. But a writer’s remarks can never be taken as serious evidence. They are remarks—nothing more. The Possessed, seven hundred dense pages long, is hardly a pamphlet, and the ideas dramatized in it are hardly simple ones. Dostoyevsky is clearly more sympathetic with certain characters than with others, and yet no one, not even Shatov, is spared his irony. Shatov’s beliefs are admirable, particularly in the context of this demonic work, and yet—are they not subjected to Stavrogin’s chilly cynicism in order that Dostoyevsky can put them to the test? And if they are fairly reasonable beliefs are they not (as Shatov’s fate suggests) utterly quixotic?

Socialism is godless—it proclaimed in its very first statement that it aims at an organization that does not presuppose God; that is, an organization based on the principles of reason and science exclusively. But reason and science have always performed, and still perform, only an auxiliary function in the life of peoples, and it will be like that till the end of time. Nations are formed and moved by some other force whose origin is unknown and unaccountable…. It is the force of an incessant and unwavering affirmation of life and a denial of death. It is the spirit of life, “river of water of life” as the Scriptures call it, the drying up of which is threatened in the Apocalypse. . . . I call it simply the search for God. The objective of any nationalist movement in any people at any time is actually a search for God, for their own, national God—and it must be, above all their own God…. God’s personality is a synthesis of the entire nation from the beginning of its existence to its end. [237]

These are ideas first expressed by Stavrogin, some years before, and now rejected by him. Or perhaps they merely embarrass him. And what are we to think of Shatov’s advice (which will be echoed by Chekhov in The Cherry Orchard) “Listen, Stavrogin, find God through labor. That is the essence of everything…. Find God through labor!”

Which is to say: find God by a denial of your own intelligence.

It is Peter Verkhovensky who strikes the reader as Stavrogin’s most conspicuous, and most compelling, double. He is an extraordinary creature, closer perhaps to mythology than to nineteenth-century Russia, though contemporary terrorism is probably fueled by an amoral zest for action, for death, for exercise, that resembles Peter’s. It is too simple to call him a psychopath, though of course he feels no remorse for anything he does, and seems incapable of even remembering it for very long. On his way to murder Shatov he stops in a restaurant and devours a steak; he eats poor Kirilov’s chicken dinner on the night Kirilov has promised to commit suicide. His manner is noisy, blustering, shrewd, and even—oddly—rather charming. When he appears the narrative springs ahead: he has the outrageous verbal energy of a Marmeladov, of an Underground Man. Flippant, breezy, knowing, cynical, good-natured, he is at the same time capable of gratuitous sadistic acts that make Stavrogin’s seem, by contrast, almost abstract or visionary. Yet he is sane in a way others are not. His amazing egocentricity makes him almost innocent, almost modest: Stavrogin remarks of him that he passes himself off as “only an agent” when in fact the society to which he belongs consists of no one except himself. If he is a freakish product of modern Western thought he is, even more significantly, the cast-off son of Stepan Verkhovensky, who has toyed casually with ideas all his life and has never considered what the consequences of his ideas might be. He hopes to drive his father to despair—but it is nothing personal, simply part of the plot. With his wide complacent maddening grin he rushes about everywhere, as his listless Fairy-Tale Prince lies half-dozing on a couch; he so charms the silly wife of the provincial governor, by a method of flattery so gross that it cannot fail to work, that he practically eats and sleeps in the Governor’s mansion. He is, or is not, really in the pay of the Secret Police. He knows everything: he is literally everywhere, like a god or a demon: if Tolkachenko, one of the “anarchists,” whispers something into the ear of another man, Peter overhears it; if Liputin pinches his wife black and blue in the secrecy of his bedroom, Peter knows. The devilish Fedka himself will not escape Peter. It is suggested that he has plans to murder even Stavrogin, whom he idolizes; though he is Stavrogin’s ape he nevertheless feels that since he “invented” Stavrogin he should control him.

Peter’s ideas, released in a feverish torrent, foreshadow the coolly Machiavellian, and altogether too reasonable, ideas of Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor. Though Dostoyevsky was certainly a reactionary politically8 it is absurd to claim, as his translator David Magarshack does, that he cannot be taken seriously as a political novelist. Are Peter Verkhovensky’s terrorist ideas really so improbable?—they are apt to strike us today as prophetic. He speaks, for instance, with approval, of Shigalov’s scheme for the transformation of society (“I started out with the idea of unrestricted freedom and ended with the idea of unrestricted despotism”), which will necessitate a complex spy system in which everyone spies on everyone else. He explains disjointedly, hurrying after his hero Stavrogin who wants only to escape him:

Each belongs to all and all belong to each. All are slaves and equal in their slavery. In the first place, there is a lowering of the level of education, science, and arts. The highest level . . . is accessible only to those with the greatest abilities…. The most gifted men cannot help being tyrants and they have always perverted others more than they have been useful to them: so they must be ostracized or put to death…. But in the herd there is equality. . . .

All we have to do is organize obedience—that’s the weak point in this world of ours…. Everything must be reduced to the common denominator of complete equality. . . . But they need to be shaken up too and we, the rulers, will take care of that. Because slaves must always have rulers. There’ll be total obedience and total depersonalization. . . . [399]

Peter declares that he is a crook, not a socialist; he is a nihilist, but one who loves aristocracy and beauty. He strikes the reader as half-mad because of his inarticulate love for Stavrogin as a man, rather than as a symbol, but Dostoyevsky does not explore this—indeed, one has the impression that he is not consciously aware of Peter’s erotic excitement at all. Peter is Stavrogin’s ape and shadow and brother but he is also his lover, and though he even kisses Stavrogin’s hand the gesture seems to be intended by Dostoyevsky as merely symbolic. Yet it is far more:

“Stavrogin, you’re an extraordinarily handsome man!” Peter cried in what might have been rapture. “Do you have any idea how handsome you are? . . . Ah, I have made a thorough study of you: I’ve often observed you when you weren’t looking…. I love beauty. I’m a nihilist, but why shouldn’t T love beauty? As if nihilists couldn’t love beautiful things! Nihilists can’t love idols, though, but me—I love idols and you’re my idol! . . . You are the leader, the sun, and I’m your worm—” [400]

With Stavrogin he is not acting a part: he speaks quite sincerely, though feverishly. Nothing is more difficult, he has admitted, than being oneself.

The last we see of Peter, after the brutal murder of Shatov, he is making plans to join several wealthy landowners at cards in the first-class compartment of the Petersburg train. He simply disappears: unlike the anarchist Nechayev on whom he is modeled, he is never caught. The Possessed is the most disturbing of Dostoyevsky’s novels because the guilty are not all punished, nor do they punish themselves. Evil, chaos, the demonic itself, is loosed into the world. Beyond the formal tragedy of Stavrogin and Stepan and the community there is a bitterly ironic, comically grotesque universe, or void, in which the concept of justice does not exist: energy like Peter’s is a phenomenon as amoral as the weather, beyond all provincial notions of good and evil. This is the “lost” state of the soul of which Stavrogin speaks in his confession. It is the primeval chaos, the formlessness out of which humanity was shaped; no ritual, no ceremony, can control it. Hence Peter’s effortless escape. And Dostoyevsky’s implied warning for the future. “I think I should inform you, Mother,” Stavrogin says early in the novel, “that Peter Verkhovensky is some sort of a universal peacemaker; peacemaking is his role, his forte, his disease” (186).

* * *

As society approaches crisis and breakdown, preparatory to a reaffirmation of its identity, it provokes private disintegration, private ceremonial exorcism. To what extent the solitary suicide knows himself a participant in a vast communal phenomenon one cannot guess: to sense that the ground is slipping out from under everyone’s feet might be salvation to one individual, but a confirmation of despair to another. Contemporary society—by which I mean primarily ours in America—seems curiously able to accommodate itself to the loss, year by year, of an astonishing number of persons of all ages to suicide and suicidal self-destruction. And there are thousands, perhaps millions, who, in plunging into the anti-intellectual and in many cases delusional systems of various religious cults (Hare Krishna, the Unification Church of the Reverend Moon, Divine Light, etc.), have opted for a less evident sort of suicide. Dostoyevsky’s Russia was in the process of an even more violent transition: a tragic rejection, as Dostoyevsky saw it, not only of the Church and the established order, but of God—and all that God symbolizes in the human soul. That Dostoyevsky preaches so extreme a doctrine, that it never seems to have occurred to him that socialism, founded on “reason and science” (which he abhorred despite his own background as an engineering student) might one day accommodate itself to the religious instinct in the people, is unfortunate, but in a way prophetic; and in any case it inspired him to an apocalyptic fervor that resulted in extraordinary creative activity. We know that terror of change—any change—is a characteristic of the primitive mind, but that primitive mind is always with us, and has the power at times to create an uncannily beautiful poetry of despair: The center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, we have been moved by our greatest poets’ angry admonitions over the centuries, even when we have felt ourselves unable to sympathize with their politics:

The specialty of rule hath been neglected;
And look, how many Grecian tents do stand
Hollow upon this plain, so many hollow factions.
When that the general is not like the hive
To whom the foragers shall all repair,
What honey is expected? Degree being vizarded,
Th’ unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order;
. . .
But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander
What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
Commotion— in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixurel 0, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
The enterprise is sick.
. . .
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows. Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right, or rather, right and wrong—
Between whose endless jar justice resides—
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite,
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey
And last eat up himself. 9

(The very spirit of The Possessed.)

It is Kirilov, the only shadow-self of Stavrogin to commit suicide, who has been making a study of the increasing incidence of suicides in Russia. Like most of the principal characters he has been abroad for several years, and has avoided people; it is thought that he has become somewhat alienated from his homeland. The narrator considers him insane, but Stavrogin takes him seriously, and his preoccupation with God—”God has tormented me all my life,” he says—seems to be Dostoyevsky’s own. In brief, Kirilov thinks of himself as a redeemer: his will be the first suicide in history to be committed for no purpose other than that of establishing man’s free will (and the non-existence of the “old” God). There will be new era, a new humanity. History will be divided into two parts: from the gorilla to the destruction of God and from the destruction of God to the physical transformation of man and the earth. Man is to be a god—even physically. Kirilov preaches to the impatient Peter Verkhovensky, who is waiting for him to kill himself:

I must affirm my unbelief, for there’s nothing higher for me than the thought that there’s no God. The history of mankind is on my side. Man kept inventing God in order to live, so as not to have to kill himself. To this day, the history of mankind consists of just that. I am the first man in history to refuse to invent God. I want it to be known always.
. . .
I’ll be the first and last, and that will open the door. And I’ll save them. That alone can save people, and the next generation will be transformed physically. Because the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve become convinced that, with his present physical make-up, man can never manage without the old God. [636-37]

Yet Kirilov is a reluctant god. We see him infrequently, but on two occasions he is playing with a ball; in one instance he is caught up in a game with an eighteen-month-old child and appears to be enjoying himself immensely, in the other he is doing exercises. By temperament he is not an unhappy man. He tells Stavrogin and Shatov that he is, in fact, very happy, as a consequence of experiencing certain “eternal moments” that obliterate all disharmony. Like Prince Myshkin (and Dostoyevsky himself), Kirilov is subject to ineffable “mystical” visions of the sort that sometimes precede an epileptic fit, though not necessarily; these visions have the power to reorganize the personality and to cleanse perception in such a way that the individual’s ego is destroyed, Kirilov explains:

There are seconds—they come five or six at a time—when you suddenly feel the presence of eternal harmony in all its perfection. It’s not of this earth, I don’t mean by that that it’s something heavenly but only that man, as he is constituted on earth, can’t endure it. He must be either physically transformed or die. It is a clear, unmistakable sensation. It is as though you were suddenly in contact with the whole of nature, and you say, “Yes, this is the truth.” When God was creating the world, He said, after each day’s creation, “Yes, this is the truth, it’s Good.” It’s not elation, really, it’s simply joy…. If it lasted for more than five seconds, the soul wouldn’t be able to stand it; it would have to disappear. [609]

To Stavrogin, whose own death is growing inside him, whose own role in the Dionysian frenzy is slowly becoming evident, Kirilov speaks with a brotherly frankness; one feels that Kirilov is the person to whom Stavrogin feels closest, though as always he is circumspect and guarded. Ivan to Kirilov’s Alyosha: watchful, puzzled, envious. “Have you ever looked at a leaf, the leaf of a tree?” Kirilov asks him. “I saw one recently. It was yellow, with some green in it and a bit wilted at the edges. The wind was blowing it around. When I was ten, in the winter, I’d close my eyes and imagine a leaf—green, bright, with those little veins, and glistening in the sun. When I opened my eyes, I couldn’t believe it possible because it was too beautiful. Then I’d close my eyes again.”

“What is that,” Stavrogin asks, “an allegory?”

“N-no, why? I meant no allegory, just a leaf. One leaf. It’s beautiful, a leaf. Everything is good.”

I meant no allegory, just a leaf. So Kirilov in his mystical state not only knows himself happy, but believes that everyone is happy—man is unhappy, in fact, because he doesn’t realize he is happy. The vision is Father Zossima’s as well: Everything is good. And if Stavrogin believes in God he doesn’t believe that he believes.

So Kirilov is a reluctant god, a reluctant sacrificial victim. Yet he must kill himself in order to affirm his free will, and the free will of all of humanity. Personal contentment is not an issue. A love of children, of nature, of life itself—all this is irrelevant. Kirilov kills himself to escape the fear of death as well (a quite logical motive shared, no doubt, by most suicides), and because, in the era in which he lives, there is no God and God’s absence cannot be endured. His gesture of free will can be interpreted, ironically, as a response to the malaise of his society as direct, and as helpless, as the various responses made by Stepan Verkhovensky and Mrs. Stavrogin and Governor von Lembke and his wife and their circle, nearly all of which are comic. It is his tragic condition not to see that his attempt to affirm his freedom through suicide is an attempt to validate a principle that, in another era, in another Russia, he would not need to make. That his “affirmation” is utterly futile is borne out not only by the fact that, caught up in the stampede of events, no one even thinks about him, but also by the comically grotesque nature of his suicide itself. (A brilliant scene, one of Dostoyevsky’s most inspired moments. Though Nabokov routinely ridiculed Dostoyevsky it is obvious that he drew upon the terrifying and jocose spirit of this sequence, and similar sequences in Dostoyevsky’s work, for the death-scenes of Clare Quilty and John Shade.) Why does Kirilov really commit suicide? For a reason Dostoyevsky could well comprehend:

Once three crosses stood in the center of the earth. One of the three of the crosses believed so completely that He said to another: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” By the end of the day, both of them died. They went and they found—no paradise, no resurrection—nothing. His words didn’t come true. Listen now—that Man was the best on earth—He represented that which makes life worth living. The whole planet with everything on it is sheer insanity without that Man. There hadn’t been anyone like Him before nor has there been since—never; and therein lies the miracle—that there never has been and never will be such a Man. Now, since the laws of nature didn’t spare even Him, didn’t spare even that miracle, and forced even Him to live among lies and to die for a lie—it proves that the whole planet is based on a lie and an inane smirk. It proves too that the laws of nature are a pack of lies and a diabolical farce. So what’s the point of living? [637]

(According to Dostoyevsky’s wife, Holbein’s painting “Christ Taken from the Cross”—as a rotting corpse—made a powerful impression on him; he remained standing in front of it for a considerable period of time. As described in the Grossmann biography, this particular scene—Dostoyevsky in deep, troubled contemplation before the Holbein painting—is extremely moving. One has a vivid sense of Dostoyevsky as a participant in his own tragic fiction.)

* * *

Irving Howe remarks of The Possessed that it is “drenched in buffoonery.” 10 It is certainly a comic work, intermittently; tragic in scope and in seriousness, yet riddled throughout with a savage comic and satiric spirit. I find incomprehensible various critics’ charges that the work is “uneven” and that the rapid shifts in tone and mood are flaws. Certainly they are deliberate, as similar irreverent passages are deliberate in Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. One can argue that there are comic-grotesque elements in certain Greek tragedies, even, and that the form, far from being damaged by such “shifts,” is powerfully enhanced by them—when, of course, they are skillfully executed. Kirilov’s bout of madness at the very end of his life, his biting of the terrified Peter Verkhovensky’s finger, are devastating strokes, yet absolutely necessary. An isolated tragic gesture is swallowed up in the comic indifference of life, of things in motion. And the more gently comic aspects of Stepan Verkhovensky’s last hours, for instance, are absolutely just. One cannot imagine The Possessed without them.

As catastrophe approaches and “degree” is lost, anything at all can happen. King Pentheus who has scorned women finds himself dressed in women’s clothing, stuck at the very top of a tree; Lear, whose comfort has meant so much to his dignity, runs wild on the heath and is quick to content himself with the smallest gesture of solicitude. It is quite possible that Stavrogin kills himself partly because as Bishop Tikhon senses, with characteristic shrewdness—he will not be able to bear ridicule. Governor von Lembke is destroyed by the lively demons that have sprung out of the earth to torment him: we learn that he is recovering from his nervous breakdown in a place far from home. No doubt it is the case that Dostoyevsky’s portrayal of Turgenev as the absurd Karmazinov is grossly unfair, but it is funny, and the “great author’s” pomposity and his humiliation before the crowd are quite necessary in the novel—just so is fame, and even “greatness” and “genius” itself, brought low. Indeed, the literary fete at the Governor’s mansion, arranged by the silly, vain, and utterly believable Mrs. von Lembke, is one of the best sustained comic sequences in all of literature. One cannot imagine Dostoyevsky’s ostensible master, Dickens, doing better. (The appearance of Captain Lebyatkin on stage is outrageous enough, but the appearance—at the very end, after both Karmazinov and Stepan Verkhovensky have been routed—of the maniac who punctuates his furious speech with a tic-like waving of his fist, and who finds the din of the gathering stimulating, is a brilliant stroke.)

It is Stepan Verkhovensky, however, who suffers most. His pride in his social pretensions has already been sadly undermined; now he submits to the crowd’s jeering not only his severely modified political beliefs but his very self, the essence of his being. As the crowd grows more and more restless, and hecklers shout, he pleads with them as “a heartbroken and rejected father” to hear him out. As if the “literary quadrille” had not degenerated into a farce, he addresses them desperately in a squeaking voice:

. . . Shakespeare and Raphael are of greater value than the emancipation of the serfs, than nationalism, than socialism, than the younger generation, than chemistry—and perhaps even than mankind itself! And it is this way because they represent the very highest human achievement, an achievement of beauty without which I wouldn’t be able to go on living. . . .

Let me tell you that mankind could survive without the English, without the Germans, and most certainly without the Russians; that it could subsist without science and even without bread. But it is impossible to do without beauty because then there would be nothing left for us to do in the world! [504]

He bursts into hysterical sobs. An angry divinity student accuses him of having sold his serf Fedka into the army, and being therefore responsible for Fedka’s crimes, and he shouts his curse at the audience and runs offstage, to be followed by a genuine maniac.

The long sequence in which Stepan goes on foot to search for Russia is a masterpiece of sentiment checked by comedy. The poor old man is obviously deranged, and it soon becomes clear that he is dying, but the incoherent yet oddly perceptive monologue that attends his pilgrimage is enlivened by a sense if not of comedy, perhaps of simple geniality. “This man was very dear to me,” the narrator has thought earlier, and it seems clear that Dostoyevsky, who has been satirizing him for hundreds of pages, shares in this sentiment. In a state of collapse Stepan sees his former life as a tissue of lies. His judgment is not overly extreme; his life has been lies. Not only that, he is lying still. “The main trouble,” he says, “is that I believe myself even while I’m lying. The most difficult thing in life is to live without lying and—and not to believe in one’s own lies” (668). Mrs. Stavrogin’s overbearing manner adds to the comedy; the Gospel woman repeats Stepan’s confused, self-glorifying tale of having been loved by two women, one of them “such a fatty” (a slip of the tongue for “beauty”), and Stepan’s deathbed announcement that he has always been in love with Mrs. Stavrogin is badly qualified. Feverish, dying, he attains a rapturous vision reminiscent of Kirilov’s, and though it is exceedingly difficult to know how Dostoyevsky wishes us to interpret it, the scene itself is a memorable one; indeed, one has the feeling that the much-derided figure of Stepan Verkhovensky is the novel’s central concern. The death of an old god, even if the old god has been somewhat ridiculous, is nevertheless tragic. One feels his death with as much emotion as the horrible death of Shatov, perhaps because Dostoyevsky has given him so unique a voice

Friends, I need God if only because He is the only Being who is capable of loving eternally. . . . My immortality is necessary if only because God would not wish to do anything unjust and put out the flame of love once it was kindled in my heart. And what is more precious than love? Love is higher than existence. . . . Since T have come to love Him and am happy because of this love, how could He extinguish me and my happiness and turn me into a zero? If God exists, then I, too, am immortal! Voila ma profession de foi— [678-79]

Pretentious to the very end, old “liberal” Russia cannot resist a final French exclamation.

With Stepan Verkhovensky’s death, and Stavrogin’s suicide, the Walpurgisnacht concludes. The entire account is being given some three or four months later, by the unimaginative but presumably reliable Govorov, an anonymous Everyman, a survivor, a Russian whom the demons were not able to possess. He, and not those brilliant others, is Dostoyevsky’s future.


  1. Crime and Punishment, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, Bantam edition, 1962), pp. 469-70.
  2. The Possessed, trans. Andrew R. MacAndrew (New York, signet edition, 1962), p. 671. All quotations from The Possessed in this essay are from this edition, and subsequent page numbers will be given in brackets in the text.
  3. Sergy Nechayev, a twenty-two-year-old disciple of Bakunin and a former divinity student, organized student disturbances at the Petersburg University in 1868 and 1869. After having organized a “Society of National Retribution” in Moscow, as a part of the World Revolutionary Movement, he and four members of a “group of five” murdered the fifth member in a way that closely parallels Shatov’s death at the hands of the Five. The case was of course a sensational one that interested Dostoyevsky greatly; according to David Magarshack, who did a translation of The Possessed (under the title The Devils) for Penguin Books, Dostoyevsky even found the model for Kirilov among Nechayev’s followers. (See the Translator’s Introduction, p. xi, in the 1976 edition. )
  4. By, among others, Magarshack, who prefaces his translation with an extraordinarily mean-spirited piece on his subject. It is a curious custom, this publication of, in paperback editions, self-important prefaces that in many cases distort or misread the text that follows.
  5. Leonid Grossmann, Dostoyevsky, trans. Mary Mackler (New York, 1975), pp. 44-45.
  6. Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore, 1977), p. 44.
  7. Crime and Punishment, p. 405.
  8. But Dostoyevsky’s fascination with the figure of the self-sacrificing revolutionary (in contrast to Peter Verkhovensky, for instance) would seem to suggest that he was divided on the subject. It is known, for instance, that he planned to write a sequel to The Brothers Karamazov (the principal novel, in fact-the lengthy one he published was only an “introduction”) in which, twenty years later, his hero Alyosha would leave his monastery cell and become a revolutionary and die for his idealism. He “would have searched for the truth and in his quest would naturally have become a revolutionary,” Dostoyevsky said. See Grossmann, p. 587.
  9. Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, I, iii, 78-88, 94-103, 109-24. The quote is given at such length both because it so brilliancy gives voice to Dostoyevsky’s sentiments and because, in the briefer form in which it is usually given, it does not adequately suggest Ulysses’ passion.
  10. Irving Howe, “Dostoyevsky: The Politics of Salvation,” in Politics and the Novel (New York, 1957 ).


Image: “Head of the Demon” by Mikhail Vrubel


Randy Souther

I'm a Reference Librarian at the University of San Francisco's Gleeson Library, and I run the Joyce Carol Oates web site, Celestial Timepiece.


  1. Holy fuck! Bravo! Though I don’t read enough, every criticism and introduction I’ve read on Dostoevsky has been insultingly unjust — until now (R.LS. should have written more about him!). I’m so glad and less alone now I know there’s someone who loves, and consequently understands, my favorite author the way I do (gimme a break, I’m 28)! Dostoevsky’s humor is also vastly underrated. Because no one seems to understand humor the way I do: it’s not only perspective, but raw emotional intelligence. Dostoevsky’s infinite curiosity, wonder, and love, is only equalled by one other artist I know — Mozart. Dostoevsky surpasses Shakespeare, since plays, no matter how dense, are far too brief. And besides — Shakespeare’s output was weak in comparison. Anyways, your tastes and perceptions are acute like any true artist, — to steal from Henry James — and let me tell you: no authority has influenced mine. Like Mozart and Napoleon may have said: “the secret to genius is love”.


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